Folk musician John Gorka started off his Thursday night show for Caffé Lena in the same way he began his set at the Eighth Step in Schenectady last May: with a reverent, hushed cover of “When Doves Cry” by the artist Prince, his fellow Minnesotan.
“If you’d told me I’d be doing a Prince song at the start of the year, I’d never believe it. It’s been that kind of year,” Gorka said of 2016, which in the musical world brought the deaths of several legendary artists, including Prince, David Bowie and Leonard Cohen.
But aside from that opening number, much about Gorka’s show was different this time, in part because the wry singer-songwriter took “mental, written and spoken” requests from the crowd for much of the night.
Wearing a dark blazer and playing acoustic guitar, Gorka performed from the corner of the dining room at Anne’s Washington Inn on South Broadway in Saratoga Springs — which inspired him to play “Working in Corners” for his second number, a song by country songwriter Nanci Griffith about being penned in.
The inn provided a temporary location for Caffé Lena, as the folk venue is currently undergoing significant renovations but plans to reopen at its longtime Phila Street address on Dec. 30, said Caffé director Sarah Craig while introducing the show.
Gorka has a long history with Caffé Lena, first playing at the coffeehouse in 1985 and returning regularly since then. But among his longtime fans present this night, there were newcomers in the audience, and for them he played the autobiographical tune “I’m from New Jersey,” a charmingly witty song about unflappable yet maligned residents of the Garden State.
With tousled gray hair and a neatly trimmed beard, the 58-year-old peppered the show with anecdotes about his folk music career — starting with his early college days in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, when he first started playing open mic nights and made a name for himself at Godfrey Daniels, a local folk coffeehouse where he opened for many folk music greats.
Demonstrating his ability to juxtapose light-hearted, funny fare with songs of heart-stopping seriousness, Gorka offered up “Land of the Bottom Line,” a thoughtful and melancholy tune about struggling to find meaning in life while making a living; “Good,” a “fast, old, positive” song; and “Outnumbered,” a touching song about the endurance of true love.
Earlier this year Gorka released “Before Beginning: The Unreleased ‘I Know,’ ” a revisited collection of recordings from 1985, which were originally shelved when he decided to re-record the songs for his debut album.
He largely passed over that release, though, playing instead a mixture of newer and older tunes mostly by request, including “Italian Girls” about his New Jersey childhood; “Blue Chalk” about friends making unfortunate choices; “Prom Night in Pigtown,” a satirical tune about a high school reunion; “Where the Bottles Break,” a scathing early ’90s tune about gentrification that skewers Donald Trump; and “I Saw a Stranger with Your Hair,” a stunning love song.